When the famous Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman was asked what had influenced him the most, he did not hesitate about the 1922 silent film The Phantom Carriage
directed by Victor Sjöström. He first saw it as a child, and watched it every year as an adult. Its influence can clearly be seen in his movies, in particular The Seventh Seal
. The Phantom Carriage
is today considered a classic among first generation films and is still widely watched, it was recently re-issued on DVD with a new soundtrack. Yet few people know this famous film which influenced one of the greatest directors of all time was based on an obscure little Swedish novel by Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlof
. The novel is called Körkarlen
(1912) and it remained untranslated into English until the release of the film in 1922, when it was published under the English title They Soul Shall Bear Witness!
. The passage of time has done strange things to both novel and film.
At the time, film was considered a lesser art, or not even art at all, while literature was a well established high-art of prestige. Lagerlof hardly paid attention to Sjöström's request to film an adaption of her book and she was not involved with the script. Today, the film version has become an influential classic while the English version of the novel has become nearly extinct. No copies are available for sale anywhere in the world, and only four copies are known to exist in research libraries: Washington DC, London, Amsterdam and Sweden. I was able to access a digital reproduction from the Library of Congress. It's probably the rarest book I've ever read, yet written by a Nobel-laureate and the basis of a famous film!
The story itself is quite spooky. As it turns out, the last person to die on New Years Eve is tasked by Death personified (complete with sickle and robe) to operate the "Death-Cart". The Death-Cart is a beaten-down horse-drawn carriage which travels the earth to pick up the souls of the dead and take them to heaven or hell. Time stops for the carriage and what seems like a year to the operator goes by in a second for the living. Sort of like how Santa Clause is able to visit every house in a single evening, the Death-Cart is able to pick up all the years dead souls. It's a dark, atmospheric, Gothic novel. The film captures it beautifully and has some cutting edge special effects using double exposure to create ghosts that can walk through walls and, famously, a carriage that rides under the ocean to pick up the souls of drowned seamen. It is a novel of redemption. Just like Scrooge in Dickens' A Christmas Carol
, a selfish man leads a vice-filled life and is taken on a ghostly tour by Death to see the fruits of his sins. He repents, promises to reform, and is given grace emerging a changed and better man.
This is the 4th book I've read by Lagerlof. It received mixed reviews, some calling it great, others not so good. It would be easy to make a case either way. I recommend it for the fan of Lagerlof, the film or Bergman. It's an interesting case of one art form trumping the other in spectacular fashion: the novel has become the dead soul which the film has returned to pick up and deposit.. in heaven or hell.
I've uploaded the copy I obtained from the Library of Congress to Internet Archive
. Rare no more. (June 2010)
: Audio recording by Lars Rolander
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